Is it right to profit on prison labor?

Is it right to profit on prison labor?

23 | When you think of prisoners working inside of a jail, what comes to mind? Prisoners cooking, mopping floors, folding clothes…? Yes, all of those are certainly true and now you can add one more – training artificial intelligence algorithms. In this episode, I talk about the pros and cons (pun intended) of prison labor.

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About the host:

Over the past decade, Jim Stroud has built an expertise in sourcing and recruiting strategy, public speaking, lead generation, video production, podcasting, online research, competitive intelligence, online community management and training. He has consulted for such companies as Microsoft, Google, MCI, Siemens, Bernard Hodes Group and a host of startup companies. During his tenure with Randstad Sourceright, he alleviated the recruitment headaches of their clients worldwide as their Global Head of Sourcing and Recruiting Strategy.  He now serves ClickIQ as its VP, Product Evangelist.


When you think of prisoners working inside of a jail, what comes to mind? Prisoners cooking, mopping floors, folding clothes…? Yes, all of those are certainly true and now you can add one more – training artificial intelligence algorithms. I’ll explain, after this.

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The startup company Vainu is building a comprehensive database of companies around the world that helps businesses find contractors to work with. To accomplish that aim, they need a lot of data analyzed and classified and that’s where prison labor comes in. Prisoners read through hundreds of thousands of business articles scraped from the internet and label whether, for example, an article is about Apple the tech company or a fruit company that has “apple” in the name. This labeled data is then used to train an algorithm that manages the database.

The partnership between Vainu and 2 prisons, one in Helsinki and one in Turku, was a happy accident. Tuomas Rasila, the founder of Vainu, was brainstorming ways to process more data for his AI when the thought occurred to him that he could use prison labor. The Vainu offices happen to be in the same building as the headquarters of the Criminal Sanctions Agency (CSA), the government agency that oversees Finnish prisons.

Here’s a quote from The Verge and their story, “Inmates in Finland are training AI as part of prison labor.”

Officials at the agency were excited to partner, according to Rasila, especially because the new jobs don’t require anything other than a laptop. “There’s no risk for violence,” he says, adding that when it comes to other forms of prison labor, like metalsmithing, access to tools that can be turned into makeshift weapons can make a prison workspace “a dangerous place.” Rasila estimates that, currently, a little less than 100 prisoners are working on Vainu’s project for a few hours a day.

Right now, Vainu and the CSA have an annual contract based on the number of tasks. The Vainu team hopes to expand elsewhere in Finland, and other countries where it can be hard to find people willing to do this type of work in local languages. To them, it’s a win-win situation. One motivation for the inmates is to make money, of course, but “a selling point of this was that the demand for training AI is actually increasing significantly, globally,” Rasila says.

This idea of using prison labor for profit is highly controversial. Some say that prisoners are exploited; most making anywhere between $0.00 – $2.00 hourly. In some cases, time is taken off of their sentence in exchange for their labor. Depending on who you ask, this is a good thing; while to others, its modern slavery. I can’t think of a better case study to see both sides than the fashion industry.

Take the case of Carcel, a Danish brand founded in 2016 specifically to provide incarcerated women with jobs, training and, possibly, a crime-free future. On any given day, prisoners at a women’s penitentiary center in Peru, serving long sentences predominantly for drug-related crimes as well as murder, human trafficking and robbery are weaving and knitting luxurious alpaca wool sweaters, deep-pile roll-necks and silky-soft track pants, destined to be sold to wealthy shoppers. More than two years into the program, both Carcel’s founders and the Peruvian prison authorities say the project has been a measurable success. However, social media had a different view.

Carcel introduced a new line of silk garments produced from women’s jails in Thailand. On Twitter, a company spokesman said, “We are proud of the work we do and the women we employ. We work in prisons to give women the opportunity to earn and provide for their families. We believe in fair and equal employment rights inside as well as outside of prison, which means that employment is chosen freely, living wages are paid and no discrimination is practices. These conditions have to be in place for us to work with any prison.”

One twitter response was “Your “sustainable business model” includes the need for women to be in prisons.”

Another, “If you make ANY profit, that is money from slavery.”

Another, “You “work in prisons” (actually the prisoners work) because it means labor is cheap and controllable. This gives you greater profit margins for your over-priced rags.”

Another, “You’re going straight to hell”

And the comments continued to slip even lower than that.

Carcel is not the only company selling clothes made by inmates. There is Prison Blues in the USA and Pieta, which like Carcel, is in Peru. All claim they can create a profitable and sustainable business model while also providing new jobs and opportunities for prisoners. In the case of Pieta, inmates don’t just make the clothes, they also contribute to the designs, act as models for advertising campaigns and are paid a portion of the sale price for each unit of clothing they produce. Upon release, former inmates can continue working with Pietà, or seek jobs at other companies with Pietà’s recommendation and support.

So is using prison labor exploitive or, is it a tool for rehabilitation? I wanted to know what a prisoner who has worked at a jail had to say, just for some insight from their perspective. I did some research and found this article from the Los Angeles Times called, “Think prison labor is a form of slavery? Think again.”

Here’s are some quotes from a former prisoner.

My prison job made me feel like I was fulfilling my existential duty to society: I was contributing. It doesn’t surprise me that prison work assignments are credited with reducing recidivism. Any change for good that happened within me while I was incarcerated grew out of my job. If I feel that way about my time making chicken a la king, an inmate who’s saving lives fighting fires must feel it 10 times over.

Some call prison labor the new Jim Crow because of the outsized number of black and brown inmates in U.S. prisons. It’s a facile charge, and worse, it may be keeping progressive companies away from prison projects. Socially conscious businesses and agencies are likely to pay inmates higher wages, train them for better jobs and do more to prepare them for life after prison — if those companies aren’t scared away by vociferous critics of prison labor.

Whole Foods used to sell goat cheese made from milk produced on a prison farm in Colorado. “We felt supporting suppliers who found a way to be part of paid, rehabilitative work being done by inmates would help people get back on their feet and eventually become contributing members of society,” a company spokesman said. Whole Foods ended the program in 2015, after consumer protests I can only assume came from people who’ve never been incarcerated. Anyone who’s done time wouldn’t deny a fellow prisoner that kind of lifeline.

I like the idea of prisoners learning a skill and working as it supports the notion that once they are released, they will not return to a life of crime but become a productive member of society. At least, that’s what I think. I want to hear what you have to say. Leave a comment?

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